Baseball | BASEBALL BULLET-IN

Taking stock of this season's overachievers, underachievers

by Wayne Graczyk

Every year when the regular Japanese baseball season is over, it is my task to compile final batting and pitching statistics for two annual publications. While it is often easy to pick out overachievers and underachievers each year as the season moves along, there are always some surprises in the final stats indicating certain players did far better or worse than expected.

Two of this year’s underachievers, for example, were a couple of recent batting champions whose names appeared way down on the list of the leading hitters in the Central and Pacific Leagues in 2015.

Yomiuri Giants outfielder Hisayoshi Chono, the CL leading hitter in 2011 with a .316 average, hit just .251 this season and ranked at No. 22 on the list. Orix Buffaloes sweet-swinger Yoshio Itoi led the Pa League with a .331 average a year ago, but this time managed just a .262 figure, putting him at No. 21 on the list.

Neither one missed a lot of playing time because of injuries, either. Chono played in 130 of the Giants games, while Itoi saw action in 132 games of the 143-game campaign.

Why they dropped off so much is anybody’s guess, but 2015 was obviously a pitcher-dominated season. There were only eight .300 hitters in all of Japan; five in the Pacific League and three in the Central.

Are we in another dead-ball era?

The biggest overachiever was Saitama Seibu Lions center fielder Shogo Akiyama, who finished second in the PL batman race with a .359 average. He also set a new record for the most hits in a season in Japan, banging out 216. This came after he batted just .259 with 123 hits in 2014.

Akiyama, by the way, surpassed the record of American Matt Murton. Murton accumulated 214 hits in 2010, his first year in Japan with the Hanshin Tigers, and he was quick to congratulate Akiyama following Seibu’s last game of the season on Oct. 2.

“I got his cell phone number and sent him a text,” said Murton. “He responded with a ‘thank you.’ “

Nice sportsmanship, and it can be remembered when Murton was the recipient of cheers five years ago at Jingu Stadium in Tokyo when he broke Ichiro Suzuki’s record of 210 hits in a game against the Yakult Swallows.

Swallows player Norichika Aoki, that year’s Central League batting title winner and also a 200-hit hitter, warmly applauded Murton from his position in center field.

Another overachiever this season was Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters player Kensuke Kondo. He was one of those five .300 batters in the Pacific League, hitting .326 with 60 RBIs in 129 games. The 22-year-old fourth-year pro played only 89 games in 2014, batting .258 with four home runs.

Though listed as a catcher, Kondo has played third base and the outfield and also served as designated hitter on several occasions. We’ll see if Kondo can show some consistency in the coming years, or if this was a one-time performance.

The Yomiuri Giants entire offensive lineup was a huge under-achiever, as evidenced by the team’s Central League-worst .243 composite batting average. Only two Giants players racked up enough plate appearances to be listed in the final batting stats — shortstop Hayato Sakamoto in 16th place with a .269 average and Chono.

As for pitchers, it was not so much underachieving, but rather bad luck that stymied some of the top hurlers. Yomiuri ace Tomoyuki Sugano, for example, compiled a fine 1.91 ERA but came out with a losing record of 10-11. That lethargic Giants batting lineup just did not score often in 2015 in games started by the 2014 Central League MVP.

Also a victim of skimpy run support was Hanshin Tigers right-hander Randy Messenger. His ERA was 2.97, but all he had to show for his efforts was a 9-12 win-loss mark, after he led the CL with 13 victories a year ago.

To be listed in the league stats table, batters need to come to the plate 3.1 times per game. Since the season consists of 143 games, it takes a minimum of 443 plate appearances to qualify. Pitchers need 143 innings pitched (one per game), which is different from the major leagues where hurlers need to appear for one inning in 80 percent of their team’s games.

Miles Mikolas (145 innings pitched) and Aaron Poreda (147) of the Giants and Fukuoka Softbank’s Jason Standridge (144 1/3) barely made it.

Despite each team having at least a four-man rotation of starting pitchers, only 14 moundsmen made the Pacific League listing, and just 12 qualified in the Central. Maybe it is time for NPB revise the minimum number of innings and follow the MLB formula which would allow pitchers to make the cut with a minimum of 115 innings pitched (80 percent of 143).

Something else to ponder: Who would ever have thought the Giants would start two Americans on the mound in both stages of the recently concluded Climax Series?

Yet it was Mikolas and Poreda who earned those assignments. They, along with Sugano, were the team’s three best all year.

Mikolas, by the way, went 13-3 and was named 2015 Tokyo Dome MVP. He takes home a ¥3 million prize. Had the Giants won the Central League pennant, he might have also been the CL MVP, too.

Contact Wayne Graczyk at: Wayne@JapanBall.com